The Canadian threat to US national security: the rise of an old canard

One thing has always fascinated me, i.e. how stories that have no basis in fact defy all attempts to discredit or defeat them.  Some such fantasies, even if they are held only by those on the peripheries of public opinion,  include the belief that the moon landings were faked, the conviction that vaccinations cause autism, and the theory that Denver’s airport sits above an underground city which serves as a headquarters of the New World Order – I had never heard that last one I have to admit.

Another erroneous idea that is startlingly hard to shake is that Canada poses a serious threat to the US when it comes to national security and that as a result the world’s ‘longest undefended border’ (it once earned that reputation but that was before 9/11) should be monitored more closely.  Even more fictional is the conclusion of a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report that “terrorists could exploit vulnerabilities along the northern border to carry out an attack on the US”  and “it’s commonly accepted that the more significant threat comes from the US-Canada” border rather than the border with Mexico.

It is really hard for me to understand how this fiction is maintained.  To compare the two US land borders, the northern and the southern, and somehow decide that the northern one outweighs the southern one from a threat perspective is mind boggling.  For illustrative purposes, in 2017 there were 3,000 ‘apprehensions’ along the Canada-US border vs, 300,000 along the Mexico-US border.  In case you are not mathematically inclined, Mexico surpasses Canada by two orders of magnitude.  And somehow the threat is greater coming from the Great White North?

Don’t get me wrong, there are things to worry about if you are an American border or security official.  Drugs are the biggest concern.  Gangs too, although I suspect that the flow of traffic is south-north and not vice-versa.  Once marijuana is fully legalised in my country I suppose that will complicate matters at border crossings as well.

But when it comes to terrorism, which after all is a true national security threat (actually it is better framed as a public safety one – see my blog from August 2017 on the difference between the two), the menace to the US from Canada is negligible.  Next to zero.  Not #1 by any stretch of the imagination.

How can I be so confident in saying so?   Easy, I start with facts.  First of all, the only serious plot that I can recall that ever got beyond the ‘gee what if we did this’ stage was the Millennium attack plan by Ahmed Ressam in 1999.  He did have bombing material and he did try to cross the Canada-US border in BC headed for LA, but he was stopped and nothing ever came of his search for terrorism fame.  Aside from that, in my 15 years at CSIS I can recall a total of ZERO serious plots where a Canadian targeted the US.  How you can get from zero to #1 threat beats me.

Secondly, the intelligence and law enforcement sharing relationships between our two countries is the best in the world, bar none.  Canadians and Americans talk on a daily basis, share databases, deploy officers in each others’ agencies and closely coordinate intelligence operations where necessary.  If there was ever a whiff of a plot originating in Canada there is absolutely no way  that collaboration would not begin ASAP: Canada cannot afford to have something go awry in the US given the importance of our bilateral ties.

True, one can never rule out the possibility of future attack planning in the US dreamed up by a Canadian, perhaps even one that neither side detects.  Intelligence is good but it is not perfect.  You can never rule out all possibilities 100% of the time.  The question thus remains: how much do you spend and deploy to cover every black swan event?  Do you place no limits on deterrence when it may be a better idea to use resources elsewhere?

In the end I am dismayed that the US government can make statements such as that by DHS and no one pushes back (consider this blog push back).  Then again in a country where the leader still brags about having had the largest win in presidential history I guess anything goes.  I just wish that my friends in the US intelligence and law enforcement communities would step up and consign this idea to the waste bin.

Perhaps I misspoke.  Maybe there is a serious threat to the US from Canada.  After all many of your best entertainers are Canadian, taking jobs away from Americans: Shania Twain, Samantha Bee, Seth Rogen…but I do apologise for Justin Bieber and Celine Dion.  There!  An apology!  You can’t get more Canadian than that!

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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